Addicted To Perfection: A Surgeon's Story


wisdom not perfection pixabay

I was sure that we had cut the ureter. Every time we looked and found it intact, I became even more certain that we had cut it. Finally, my exasperated chief resident told me to stop. I was emergently operating on my next door neighbor for what turned out to be cancer, and that’s how I excused my paranoia. (She’s now cancer free, and yes, her ureter is fine). That kind of worrying had taken over my practice of surgery, though. The joy of operating, teaching residents, watching patients heal and recover from major and minor illness had been replaced by a constant vigilance for the next complication, unexpected finding, or patient that I was unable to help. Every decision, every operation, whether straightforward or difficult had become agonizing. I was consumed with trying to make sure everything was perfect. I stopped believing in chance, uncertainty, and incurable disease. Unfortunately, that was all in my subconscious. Consciously, I felt like I was being diligent and holding myself accountable in an admittedly high stress career. After all, I was responsible for people’s lives, right? Though I didn’t see it at the time, I had lost focus on my patients because I was completely focused on making sure I didn’t make a mistake. At the same time, I was winning teaching awards from residents and medical students. I had the trust of colleagues who asked me to operate on their loved ones. By all accounts, I was a well-respected and competent surgeon, yet I was having chest pain on my drive in to take out an appendix. I desperately wanted the pain to stop, so I started looking for ways to quit surgery.

It had started during my third year pediatric surgery rotation. A 3-year-old girl died following a simple procedure, and I felt the soul-crushing reality that even the small things we do have major consequences. From there it was double thinking every decision, replaying each operation in my mind sometimes dozens of times, lying sleepless, staring at my pager and dreading the next call.

When I reached the point where I was having chest pain and suicidal ideation, I got into counseling. At the first session, I spilled all of my angst. The counselor looked at me and said “You’re an asshole.” That was a bit less support than I was expecting, but he continued. “Look at how you’re treating yourself, is this how you treat your patients? Your family? Why have you put up with this abuse for so long?” He also pointed out (to my horror) that I had a God complex – I had convinced myself that if I did my job perfectly, I would get perfect results. I had thought I was rooted in reality, but I really wasn’t.

Opening myself up to counseling (which required swallowing a lot of pride) honestly may have saved my life. Like any other recovery, the first step was realizing that I needed help. The next step (and the hardest for me) was asking for help. I had to trust someone else the way my patients trusted me. I had to be open to things I didn’t really believe in at the time. I had to accept that things could get better, but that there was no quick fix to my pain, like finding a new job or career. At first, it was simple relaxation techniques. I’ve since learned about the power of mindfulness, meditation, and practicing gratitude. I’ve found a peaceful bliss in yoga. Yeah, picture your favorite (or least favorite) surgeon quietly meditating or posed in a downward facing dog. Trust me, it’s funny. I’ve gradually learned to quiet the storm that had taken over my consciousness. It was hard work. Harder than anything I’ve ever done. No joke.

The next thing I needed to do was to take an honest look at what was going on in my head. What I found was that I had lost track of reality. I was spending so much time ruminating in my head that I had become unaware and not accepting of what was really going on in the world. I was caught up thinking about how things should be rather than accepting how things actually are. I was addicted to perfection and would accept nothing less. Accepting reality meant accepting imperfection – my own, and that of the world around me. I had to realize that I have a lot less control over reality than I want. What I do have control of, though, is how I react to and interact with reality. I’ve learned that striving for perfection is different than expecting perfection. Perfection is not an outcome measure. Reality is the outcome. Perfection is doing the best I can with the situation presented to me, accepting the reality of the outcome, and realistically assessing if I can do better the next time.

It’s been a long road, but I’m better now. I’m eight years into practice, and I like being a surgeon. I can schedule a major case without chest pain. I can deal with a major complication without falling into depression. I can separate myself from the pain and suffering I see every day so that I can be fully present with my family. Despite that separation, I feel even more compassion and have more satisfying relationships with my patients and colleagues. The energy I was putting into angst can now go to my family and to myself without the guilty feeling that maybe I’m not doing enough for my patients. I think my complication rate has actually gone down, too.

Am I cured? No. I’m in recovery, just like any other addict. And just like any other addiction, it has gotten easier with time, but I know it will never go away. I slip. I pick myself up. I ask for help. The trick is to have the awareness to realize when I am slipping. I’ve moved from counseling to career coaching, but this is still the foundation I have to keep coming back to as I work to shape my career. I strive for the strength to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. The world is not perfect. It never will be. And that’s okay. I’m not here to make it perfect, I’m here to make it better.

A big “Thank you!” to one of my great clients for sharing his story.  I talk with many doctors who think they may have to leave medicine. In many cases, this is not true. If you are questioning your career choice, it is worth the time and effort to find out what is possible for you. There is a right answer for you, and it can be found. 

Latest Posts

Find what you're looking for:

The Doctors Crossing


  1. Geetika on July 22, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I related to it so much, and am encouraged to know that there’s a way through the anxiety!

    • Heather Fork on July 22, 2015 at 10:44 am

      Geetika, you are most welcome. I am grateful to my client who shared his story so other doctors can know there is a constructive way out of perfectionism. Many doctors suffer from this problem because the same traits and high standards that make them excellent physicians also cause them to place unrealistic expectations on themselves. It takes true discernment and self-compassion to find the right balance. I am glad that this blog was helpful to you! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Bryan Gunnoe, MD on July 22, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for sharing this story. Could be titled “On being a human first, a surgeon second”.

    Good luck on your journey, and please keep sharing it. As a surgeon and a patient, I can tell you, patients respond better emotionally and physically (yes they get better outcomes!) when their surgeon is down-to-earth, self-effacing, self-aware, and honest about their personal involvement with the patient’s emotional and physical needs. This doesn’t mean being a compulsive hand-holder and hugger, etc., it just means being yourself without the white coat armor that we often use to distance, protect, and effectively dehumanize ourselves.

    • Heather Fork on July 22, 2015 at 11:04 am

      On behalf of the author, I thank you very much Bryan, for your astute comments. You offer excellent advice. Thank you for sharing your perspective and support! All the best to you too on your journey.

  3. Sara T, MD on July 22, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Thank you to you and your client for sharing such a deeply personal story. I hope more physicians will be encouraged to share their stories about perfectionism and lack of self-compassion. Everyone should live free from the fear of imperfection.

    I am passionate about physician health and work in this area so I really appreciate seeing such authentic messages from other physicians. It can truly make a difference in the lives of physicians and their families.

    All the best,

    • Heather Fork on July 22, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Sara, I appreciate the work that you are doing in helping other physicians in the area of well-being. Thank you for reading and offering this most supportive and encouraging feedback. Good luck with your efforts on behalf of physicians. We need you!

  4. Steve Margolis, MD, FACS on July 22, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Excellent sharing of your dealing with those clandestine delusions we all,to some degree,
    carry with total wastefulness. I am a semi retired surgeon who is dealing with my own brand of artificial thoughts that can impede moving forward. After a brief consultation with Heather I feel a new strength of
    hope of ability to return to medical work force in a new capacity.
    Thanks for your letter with words of a wavelength that resonates with me.

    • Heather Fork on July 22, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you Steve for your great comments and kind words. I am really glad this post resonated with you, and you are feeling hopeful about the future. It’s wonderful to hear from you.

  5. Martha Mejia on July 22, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Absolutely, we all have these types of experiences and feelings. I applaud this surgeon’s strength to seek help and continue in the profession. I too, have found myself compulsively checking and rechecking that I made no mistakes. I also wanted to quit medicine. I am now working part time and really enjoying medicine, I was so overworked in part time solo medical practice that I began to hate the profession and its demands.

    • Heather Fork on July 22, 2015 at 9:18 pm

      Martha, I appreciate your sharing your experience as well as reading and commenting on this blog. It is so helpful for other physicians to see that they are not the only ones struggling and to hear success stories like yours where you found the right balance for yourself. Good for you for figuring it out and finding a way to still enjoy medicine and have a life.

  6. CB MD on August 3, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Thank you to the author for sharing. I too have perfectionism & am trying to dig myself out of what has become an awful situation, trying to meet everyone’s expectations perfectly, knowing it’s impossible, and getting one stress induced ailment after another. I just made the decision to leave where I am, hopefully not quit medicine but do it more sanely,with less fear, and more sleep and family time. I’m giving myself a year to do it. I’ve been reading this site for 6-12 months and appreciate the posts on doing things differently.

    • Heather Fork on August 5, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      Hello CB, It’s great to have your comment. Thank you for reading and sharing your own situation. Good for you for making a decision to find something better for yourself. No one should have his or her health suffer in the process of providing healthcare! Many of the doctors I work with find better clinical settings and are able to enjoy practicing medicine again. I am glad you are going to make your own satisfaction and health a priority. Please keep in touch and let us know how things go for you.

Leave a Comment


"Heather’s approach was great! She would listen to me and helped me appreciate who I am."

I remember when she said ‘do your resume before our next meeting’, I was about to push back but she gently nudged me along and I’m glad I did exactly what she wanted me to do. We also did interview prep via Zoom and I was offered a great job in UM. She has continued to follow up even after I was offered this job, helping me with pointers about negotiating. I will totally recommend the Doctors Crossing and Heather to anyone feeling stuck like me and looking for a great coach! Thank you Heather!

- Modupe Oladeinde, MD

Family Medicine
Tim O

The coaching I have had with you has been life changing."

You helped me find the courage to seek out leadership positions and become a medical director as well as a physician advisor. I am grateful we crossed paths and am a different person because of it. You have inspired me to "believe" in spite of my inner skeptic. I consider you one of my most important mentors and am proud to also call you a friend. This says a lot given the apprehension I felt when I took a chance with our first coaching session. Even though I have already made a successful transition, I still value your ongoing mentorship and can enthusiastically attest that the value of your services is tremendous!

- Tim Owolabi, MD

Family Medicine
Lynette Charity

“I was at a crossroads in my medical career. I asked myself, "Do I stay or do I go?" 

I met Heather at the SEAK conference. She and I revisited this question.  Did I want to quit being medicine completely? She helped me to identify my needs, wants, and my vision for my FUTURE, not just in medicine, but in life!!!

She was able to listen to my "ramblings" about becoming a stand-up comic, lounge singer and voice-over actor and translate them into action steps.  I chose to become a composite of all of these. Now I am a more confident, healthier, happier person. I credit this in its entirety to the tutelage I have received and continue to receive from Heather.  She cares. She listens. She was there for ME.  She will be there for YOU!

- Lynette Charity, MD

Gail Miller

“I am forever grateful to Heather for helping me to recognize, I am more than just my M.D." 

Heather helped me understand that I am more than just a doctor and that my experiences in clinical medicine are valuable in so many arenas.  As a result I realized that there are other ways to use my background, still be able to help people and continue to challenge myself and grow.  To that end I discovered coaching - specifically health coaching.  I am on my journey becoming a health coach and truly loving it!

- Gail Miller, MD

OB/Gyn physician

“Thank you, Heather, for helping me transform my career, my faith and my life."

What started out as an initial thirty-minute consultation call turned into an amazing four-year journey that transformed my life, personally, spiritually and professionally. 

Heather helped me to discover my doing so, I discovered I still had a calling for medicine but it now came from a place of truth... wife and I are opening our first concierge medicine clinic in a community we love. I’m actually excited to have the opportunity to practice medicine the way I believe it’s meant to be, with a focus on the doctor-patient relationship and an emphasis on faith. I know if I had not reached out to Dr. Fork, my life would not be where it is at today.

- Steve Lapke, MD

Papillion, NE
Sue Zimmermann

“Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart."

She is incredibly knowledgeable about the range of careers available to physicians and provided me with advice and connections which I would not have found on my own.  From the start she encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try different things.  I was laid off unexpectedly in early 2017, and Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart and making decisions based on trust, not fear.  Now I am enjoying working part-time in a clinical setting in addition to teaching and writing.

- Sue Zimmermann, MD

Orthopedic Surgeon
Devki Patel

After months of struggling to find a non-clinical career that matched my values and passion, I stumbled upon Heather's website which truly changed my life."

Heather's insightful and personalized approach to career coaching made me think outside the box since she took the time to evaluate my personality, values, interests, and preferred lifestyle.

Through her encouragement, practical advice, and professional connections, I was able to find a non-clinical position at a state Medicaid agency that aligned with my passion for population health and serving low-income communities. In addition to her coaching sessions, Heather has built a community of like-minded physicians through her blog, and I feel honored to recommend her to friends and colleagues who seek to make positive changes in their professional and personal lives.

- Devki Patel, MD

Jay Macregor

Working with Heather ultimately helped me leave my job in corporate healthcare and find a path that was much more fulfilling."

My career was going reasonably well but I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling I could do better; or at least find a better long-term career fit.  

I was able to find a surgery job that better aligned with my goals and professional interests.  Additionally, Heather helped me start a consulting business which has allowed me to pursue a true passion: helping medical students, residents, and attendings surgeons navigate the challenges of high-stakes standardized exams.    

If you are reading this as a “Type A” surgeon who doesn’t think coaching is for you, I would encourage you to give Heather a shot.  I’m very glad I did!

- Jay MacGregor, MD

Colorectal Surgeon

“I gained the confidence in myself to develop an action plan that blended the best parts of my experiences and interests into a cohesive career." 

Through our work, I learned to trust myself to make good decisions for my own future – something I hadn’t realized I was struggling with because as an emergency physician, I make life-changing decisions with patients every day. 

By feeding my creativity and interests in other realms of my professional life, I’ve found renewed compassion for my patients and myself, making every shift an opportunity to actually care for people. Thank you Heather. I really couldn’t have made these changes without your help!

- Liz McMurtry, DO

Emergency Medicine Physician

The simple truth is - Heather Fork totally helped me change my life."

I never would have had the courage to make the changes I’ve made without her unwavering support, wealth of knowledge and commitment. 

When I first started working with Heather, I was downtrodden...I’d been practicing medicine for 20+ years and yet had never quite found my place.  During the first year I worked with Heather, I left the practice I’d been working at, and recreated an entirely new professional purpose.

I’m now an executive and leadership coach, a university professor, and a Brené Brown Daring Way facilitator, and I have never looked back.  I love what I am doing more than at any other time in my professional life and I credit Heather with seeing in me what I was never able to see in myself, until now.

Don’t hesitate, don’t doubt yourself, schedule your time with Heather as soon as possible- she can help you reconnect to your purpose and reinvent your life.

- Amie Langbein, DO

Family Physician
KB Karen Barnard Photo

"After 30 years in academic medicine, I wanted a career change but had no idea where to start. Medicine was all I knew."

I signed up for coaching with Heather and it transformed my life. She helped me get clear on what I wanted my life to look like. We reviewed my skills, values, and strengths. She instilled hope in me that change IS possible after 50 years! 

The outcome is that I have created a life I love! I practice endocrinology part-time and own a life coaching business! Coaching with Heather is one of the best investments I have made in my life. 

- Karen Barnard, MBBCh, MPH

Endocrinologist and Life Coach

"Heather was my source of hope during a time when I felt stuck and confused. She gave me the permission and confidence to reach higher than I believed I could."

After graduating from residency and starting a family, I lost sight of why I became a physician. I struggled to convince myself to stay in a career that was clearly the wrong fit for me and my family. My anxiety about work was at an all-time high when I reached out to Heather. She provided something that my mentors, friends, and family could not – rather than just offering career advice, she changed the way I think about my life so that I could understand how my career would fit into it. I realized I wasn’t ready to give up on medicine and eventually found a job in academic medicine. I finally feel that excitement for medicine that I used to feel when I was in training. More importantly, I feel like I can be the role model to my young daughter who may one day also face similar challenges between career and family. Thank you, Heather, for all your kindness, support, and skillful coaching! The experience was life-changing!

- Yuri Shindo, MD

Internal Medicine Physician
Camille Gardner-Beasley

"As a Physician, your personal and even professional needs are often overlooked. I learned how to prioritize my career goals by working with Dr. Heather Fork."

She taught me how to put into practice what I knew in theory, that taking care of myself was a priority. I learned to give myself permission to make the career choices that would give me the work-life balance I desperately craved and needed. The process of confronting fears and insecurities was a bit scary, but well worth it in the end. I am now a happier version of myself with a non-clinical job that I truly enjoy!

- Camille Gardner-Beasley, MD

Family Medicine
Anna testimonial

"After 10 years in outpatient family medicine I felt stuck and knew I needed a change but I didn’t know where to begin. Thankfully I found Heather and she guided me every step of the way."

She helped me carefully assess my interests, strengths and passions while also providing me with constructive changes to implement in my job search and resume. With Heather’s help, I just landed a fully remote UM position and I am also exploring coaching as well. Now I feel like the possibilities are endless and I’m excited for this next chapter in the nonclinical world! Thank you Heather for changing my life for the better.

- Ana Jacobellis, DO


"I'm truly thankful to have had the opportunity to be coached by Heather, she is not only a resourceful mentor but a wise and supportive friend. I'm honored to recommend Heather to all my friends and colleagues."

I had been a practicing Internist for 20 years when I reached a point when I needed to make a serious change in my career path. While I enjoyed seeing patients, I was not satisfied with my life-work balance. My job was taking me away from my family and left me little time and energy to do other things that are important and meaningful to me. I came across Dr. Fork's podcast; The Doctor's Crossing Carpe Diem Podcast, it is such an informative and enjoyable podcast for any physician who wants to do more with their career and life in general. Then I had the pleasure to get career coaching from Heather, it was truly an amazing experience. Heather has broad knowledge of all the different career paths that are available for physicians, she is so insightful and very easy to talk to. She helped me clarify my goals, examine my own mindset and definition of success. Together we developed a clear plan and actionable steps to reach these goals. I eventually made a career transition to a remote non-clinical position that allows me to do meaningful work which aligns with my personal and professional goals and priorities. 

- Abbey Awad, MD

Internal Medicine

"There have been a handful of people who have come into my life and changed it, and Heather is one of those people."

From the very first interaction with Heather, it became abundantly clear that she possessed a systematic approach and a methodology firmly rooted in my focusing on my goals and aspirations. Heather's coaching sessions helped me dismantle limiting beliefs and unearth the capable woman, mother, and physician within me. Under Heather's guidance, I began to dream again. I rediscovered my passion for writing, found the courage to share my stories, and even launched my own coaching practice. Today, I specialize in helping others conquer imposter syndrome and overcome burnout, empowering them to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. Working with Heather fundamentally shifted my perspective and allowed me to show up authentically in every facet of my life, resulting in a profound sense of fulfillment.

I am deeply grateful that I can continue my work in the emergency department and serve my community as a physician as well as a coach. Working with Heather was a transformative gift that enabled me to rediscover my true self, find clarity in my life's purpose, and unlock my full potential. Through her guidance, I not only reignited the powerful, confident, and bold version of myself I had lost sight of but also realized the boundless possibilities that lay ahead.

- Maria Dominguez 

Emergency physician and coach